This week, as we are waiting for the Ugandan parliament to debate whether or not homosexuality should be punishable by death (or at the very least life in jail) it might be helpful to review whatever could make anyone reach such a murderous conclusion.
The short answer is: lack of awareness, sometimes wilful. Lack of awareness about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (no, it is not a lifestyle choice). Lack of awareness about the link between sexual orientation and sexually predatory tendencies (there is none). And lack of awareness about how to adequately address actual harm (for starters, it would make sense not to target those already marginalized for more abuse).
The draft legislation on the table in Uganda is not new. A version of the bill—which ups penalties for homosexuality and allegedly creates new provisions to criminalize the “promotion” of homosexuality—was already circulating last year. Moreover, the belligerent rhetoric directed at anyone who does not look or seem straight is neither innovative nor specific to Uganda. For years, politicians and pundits from the United States to Malawi have spread the notion that gay people “recruit” children and others into homosexuality and that paedophilia and homosexuality are intimately linked.
While these claims have been repeatedly refuted with facts, they stubbornly persist. There are any number of reasons for this, two of the most prominent being that 1) blaming gays for all society’s wrongs is easy and helps to divert attention from any real problems; and 2) that stereotypes about sexual attraction and gender roles—persistent in all societies everywhere—fuel fear of homosexuality. And it is only by tackling the latter that enough people will see through the former and identify it as wrong.
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It is with this in mind that I invite you to identify the most harmful gender or LGBT-related stereotype in your society or immediate circle of friends, and to commit to calling it out as damaging whenever it comes up.
Here is mine: gay men and lesbian women are attracted to (literally) everyone of their own gender. I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone say that they are OK with someone being gay, as long as that person doesn’t hit on them personally. Or that they feel uncomfortable in a locker room or sports club with someone who is gay or lesbian. Or similar variations on this theme.
Apart from the obvious delusional aspect of these comments (really, I always want to say, you are not that attractive), they just don’t make any sense. If this proposition were accurate, it would mean that all straight men and all lesbian and bisexual women are attracted to me, a notion which I can personally attest to being false.
More to the point, this myth can be countered by inviting people to reflect on their own patterns of attraction. Everyone has sexual preferences and most of the time we can’t say specifically why we want to have sex with one person and not the other. What we can say—gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight alike—is that the vast majority of us don’t want to jump everyone we see given they simply have the appropriate genitalia.
The bill which is likely to be discussed in Uganda is fuelled, partially, by the extreme version of this myth: not only do all gay men want to have sex with all men, they also want to have sex all the time. I want to believe that anyone who thinks through this logic for just a moment will find it ridiculous and even humorous in its absurdity. Yet, for the thousands of gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women living in Uganda it is not funny.
Myths can kill. And the only way to prevent that from happening is to kill the myths themselves.